09/25/2013 07:12 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Honor a Great American Legacy by Celebrating National Public Lands Day

Not so long ago, there was nothing partisan about conserving our stunning landscapes, protecting our clean air and water, maintaining intact habitat for wildlife and fish and guaranteeing Americans public places to hunt, fish and recreate. Landmark laws to do that won widespread bipartisan support and were signed by presidents from both parties. Presidents from both parties have taken steps on their own to conserve special places.

As a recent report by the National Wildlife Report points out, however, even something as all-American as our country's outdoor heritage has become ensnared in divisive politics. The report, "Valuing Our Western Public Lands: Safeguarding our Economy and Way of Life," looks at the attacks on our public lands in the form of calls by several state legislatures to take over federally managed lands, the bulk of which are in the West. Throughout the 112th and 113thCongresses, our elected representatives have introduced dozens of bills to sell millions of acres of public land, roll back environmental protections and make logging, drilling and other natural resource extraction the priority over all other uses.

This Saturday, National Public Lands Day, is a good time to remember the incredible legacy handed down to us by farsighted policy makers and advocates from previous generations. Tens of thousands of volunteers nationwide will build trails, restore wildlife habitat, plant trees and pick up litter in national forests, national parks and wildlife refuges. Activities are planned on more than 30 sites across Colorado.

Recent polls show that politicians who don't value conserving these special places are out of step with the majority of their constituents. A bipartisan survey by Colorado College in Colorado Springs found that a majority of the Rocky Mountain region's voters support conserving public lands and better enforcement of environmental safeguards. A majority of the respondents oppose selling the region's public lands.

A 2012 National Wildlife Federation poll of self-identified hunters and anglers showed that a majority believe protecting public lands should be given priority, even if it means limiting energy production on those lands.

Those beliefs are based on sound economics, according to studies by Montana-based Headwaters Economics and the coalition Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development. Those studies found that that areas in the Rocky Mountain West with higher percentages of conserved public lands have experienced higher rates of growth in population, employment and income than areas with fewer public lands managed for conservation. As a region, the West has outperformed other parts of the country in those key economic areas thanks in large part to the quality of life associated with public lands.

Outdoor recreation, including fishing and hunting, are big business, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. The group estimates that outdoor recreation supports 6.1 million jobs nationally and produces $646 billion in spending each year.

The conservative thing to do is to responsibly manage our investment in public lands to ensure this wonderful inheritance produces benefits indefinitely. But our federal lawmakers have failed to adequately protect this important investment. Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1965, with bipartisan backing, to use some of the royalties from offshore oil and gas production to support conservation. Many times, however, these funds have been diverted for other uses and that will happen again if some in Congress get their way.

Our public lands belong to all Americans. The national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, red-rock canyons, forests and sagebrush steppes found across the country make up America's big back yard. We're all on equal footing when we venture into the backcountry in pursuit of a cutthroat trout or a photo of the morning mist slowly revealing granite peaks. These lands provide timber, minerals and fuel as well as clean air and water and wildlife habitat. Our federal agencies are charged with thoughtfully managing the lands for multiple uses without degrading the very qualities that make the places special.

For more information about activities in your area, go to

Ann Morgan is executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's regional office in Boulder, Colo. She formerly served as state director of the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado and Nevada and as an adjunct professor and research fellow at the University of Colorado's Natural Resources Law Center.